Gus Cesar, an assistant principal at Alief Middle School, helps Beau Bennet, a first-year teacher, collect textbooks. Bennett left his job in retail hoping to find something more meaningful, despite the pay cut. Photo by John Shapley
By Leah Binkovitz and Ericka Mellon / Houston Chronicle
August 23, 2015 Updated: August 23, 2015 11:18pm
Beau Bennett wanted a more meaningful career. Houston-area schools needed more teachers.
Bennett's job dissatisfaction and a hiring rebound in Texas schools converged this spring. The former Walgreens store manager will greet students Monday for the first day of classes in Alief ISD. He will teach language arts after finishing a fast-track certification program.
Bennett joins thousands of new teachers benefiting as Texas school districts scramble to recover from state budget cuts in 2011. Hiring hasn't kept up with booming student enrollment statewide, particularly in the Houston region, and persistent teacher shortages in high-demand subjects such as bilingual education, math and science have intensified.
To compete for teaching talent, districts continue to raise starting salaries - the Houston area's 20 largest systems will pay at least $50,000 this year, and several districts increased specialty stipends, especially for bilingual teachers.
Bennett, 35, has the mission-driven spirit that public school recruiters seek as the private sector lures and pressure mounts for teachers to accelerate student test scores.
More InformationBy the numbers
Number of teachers projected to be hired
in Texas this year
Number projected to be hired in the seven-county Houston region this year
Teachers hired by HISD for this year
The teacher turnover rate in the region in 2013-14
"A couple years ago I made the most money I ever made, but I was the least satisfied with my job," said Bennett, who took a pay cut from $68,000 to $52,000.
Rose Benitez, the former human resources director in the Alief Independent School District who now runs the state association for school personnel administrators, said the perennial teacher shortage areas have worsened since the 2011 budget cuts.
"Districts are still scrambling trying to fill all the positions," Benitez said Thursday.
Recruiting, retainingSchool systems across Texas have been playing catch-up to hire teachers since state lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from education in 2011. The following academic year, districts statewide eliminated more than 10,700 teaching positions, or 3 percent of the 2010 teaching corps, according to Texas Education Agency data. In the Houston area, nearly 3,100 teaching jobs were lost, mainly through attrition and some layoffs.
With lawmakers restoring much of the funding in 2013, most of the Houston area's biggest districts approached their 2010 staffing levels last school year. And yet, as student populations continue to climb, the pool of new teachers has shrunk.
More than 48,200 teachers were expected to be hired statewide for this school year. Yet the state's colleges of education and alternative teacher-preparation programs were projected to produce fewer than half that many certified teachers, according to the Region 4 Education Service Center. The state-created agency supports local districts.
The seven-county Houston area, with 50 districts and about 40 charter schools, is particularly competitive. The region was projected to hire about 10,800 teachers this year, taking into account student enrollment increases and staff turnover.
"We continue to be not only a state that is growing, but an area of the state that is growing," said Robby McGowen, a chief officer at the education service center in Houston. "So, it is imperative that our recruiting be more proactive, looking beyond our geographic boundaries."
McGowen, a former superintendent of Brazoria County's Alvin ISD, said district leaders also must focus on retention. Teacher turnover hit 17 percent in the region in 2013-14, according to the most recent state data.
"Texas has had a problem recruiting and retaining teachers for a long time," said Louis Malfaro, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. "I remember as far back as the early '90s, Houston and Dallas starting the school years with 300 to 500 substitute teachers in the classroom."
Houston ISD, the state's largest district, had hired 1,902 teachers and had 37 vacancies as of Thursday, said human resources chief Gloria Cavazos.
Texas isn't alone in struggling to fill teacher vacancies, yet some states have faced bigger setbacks. Pay freezes and lower salaries in North Carolina spurred more out-of-state poaching (HISD, for example, hired away 55 teachers last year). And California repeatedly has issued pink slips to teachers.
"They were laying off anyone, or threatening to lay off anyone, with less than three years of experience," said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. "You can't do that and think it won't have an impact on people's thinking about whether they want to go into teaching."
Scott Muri, superintendent of Spring Branch ISD, said his district continues to struggle financially. It had 15.9 students per teacher last school year, up from 14.4 in 2010, state data show.
To remain competitive, the school board approved raises of 3 percent on average this year. However, balancing the budget required the district to take an estimated $9 million from savings.
"As the new superintendent, that's alarming to me," said Muri, hired in July. "The funding model has got to change."
Spring Branch ISD joined more than 600 districts suing the state over the school funding system. The Texas Supreme Court will hear arguments Sept. 1. A district court judge sided with the districts.
As dean of the University of Houston's College of Education, Robert McPherson has seen school officials step up their recruiting efforts. They host job fairs earlier in the spring, contact aspiring teachers before their senior year and entice them to student-teach in hopes they'll return.
Still, attracting candidates to the teaching profession - and to traditional colleges of education - remains a challenge. Alternative certification programs, which offer an accelerated path to teaching, have upped competition while helping alleviate some staffing shortages.
In 2012, the number of newly certified teachers in Texas dropped to its lowest level in eight years, from a high of 26,360 in 2008 to fewer than 18,100. Certifications increased the next two years, topping 21,360 in 2014. About half came through alternative programs, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. UH, which worked with districts to revamp its teacher education program, has seen an uptick in students taking the certification exam since 2010 after years of decline. But increasing overall numbers won't solve the problem entirely, said Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia University's Teachers College. States face chronic shortages of bilingual, special education, math and science teachers, yet have surpluses in other areas.
"I don't know of a state where there isn't a glut of elementary school teachers," explained Levine, now president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which provides scholarships to aspiring science, technology, engineering and math teachers.
'Demonization of teachers'Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, blamed staffing shortages on "the constant demonization of teachers in the media and from both political spectrums."
"Until we turn around the rhetoric and really provide the supports necessary to help our teachers, especially new teachers, we're probably going to see a shortage for some time," he said.
Malfaro, of the state union affiliate, added that districts also should offer incentives to seasoned teachers to stay on the job. A teacher with 20 years of experience earns roughly $60,000 - about $10,000 more than first-year teachers - in the Houston area's biggest districts.
Fort Bend ISD has tried to distinguish itself with a "talent draft," said Kermit Spears, the chief human resources officer.
It's like a juiced-up job fair, held the first time on the district's football field and the next year at the Sugar Land Skeeters' minor league baseball park. Some 735 people showed up in 2014. About 1,500 attended this year despite stormy weather.
Recruiters in Spring ISD went with transparency when talking to job candidates, said human resources officer Tameka Bruce. The district had been in the news after a transcript scandal that the new superintendent, Rodney Watson, vowed to fix.
"One of the things we leveraged was telling our story," Bruce said. "I think our honesty served as a great approach."
HISD is working to entice its own top-ranked students into education careers. It plans to launch a program this year to pay tuition for up to 100 students who attend the University of Houston and then teach in the district.
HISD has yet to return to 2010 staffing levels, despite a spike in student enrollment. After the 2011 budget cuts, the district eliminated 892 teaching positions, or 7.5 percent of its teaching workforce, state data show.
Last school year, HISD had nearly 19 students per teacher, up from 17 in 2010, the data show.
Cavazos, who became human-resources chief in April, said she has not yet analyzed whether the district is short on teachers.
In HISD, unlike in most districts, principals make staffing decisions. Yet the district has given principals less money under its standard budget formula since the budget cuts. The amount remains $78 per student less than in 2010. The HISD school board, however, agreed with Superintendent Terry Grier's recommendation to pour nearly $48 million more into salaries and stipends for this school year.
Cavazos said higher starting salaries are important, though official board approval of the amounts comes late in the recruiting season. This year, she said, she plans to focus on retention by, among other things, bolstering a mentor program for teachers.
Bennett, who spent last week setting up his classroom at Alief Middle School and planning lessons with colleagues, said he was optimistic he made the right career change.
"I'm hearing stories of kids (who) graduated from high school and invited their middle school teacher to the ceremony," he said. "I'm looking for that."